‘Arctic’ Is a Thriller of Slow, Painful Beauty

Arctic” is a stunning film of epic frozen landscape and perilous stillness. Rational thought, preparation and patience are the keys to human survival. Panic and fear are sure recipes for death in this ice-encased terrain. “Arctic” is the story of one man’s patient quest for survival until concern for another human being pushes him to attempt the unthinkable.  

The great Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen, as Overgård, exudes that self-control as a downed airplane pilot thoughtfully laying whatever steps he needs to ensure his survival until his day of rescue finally occurs. He is not inexperienced or untrained in these matters. He has dug a series of holes deep beneath the ice to the lake below, with lines reaching from vertical poles and tin cans to alert him when a fish is hooked. He keeps to a regular schedule, sleeping and eating the same diet of raw fish daily. At the same time every day, he makes the trek to a nearby hill where he sets up a crank operated transmitter which sends out the same repetitious signal and receives the same lack of response.

He does this like clockwork without regard to storms or the redundant frustration of failure. Then one day in the midst of winds and blizzard snow, there’s an answer in the form of a green light, which indicates someone has gotten his signal. A helicopter appears on the horizon and makes its way towards him. Rescue is imminent. Except it isn’t.

The wind is so bad; it tosses the chopper around like a cat’s toy. One has to wonder why the pilot even chances it. But he does and pays for it. The chopper crashes and the pilot is dead. The co-pilot, his wife (Maria Thelma Smáradóttir), is barely alive. Overgård’s careful planning and infinite patience and self-control is abandoned as he makes plans to do whatever he needs to save her life. His quest begins with constructing a makeshift sled, loading water and fish and stuffing her into a polar worthy sleeping bag. Mapping his course and pulling the sled behind him, he begins a long and physically exhausting journey to the nearest occupied outpost.

In a land so uniformly vast, Overgård and the bundled woman are ants against solid white terrain. Those ice sheets are only broken up with black rock formations that rise up creating difficult and sometimes insurmountable barriers to their progress. Overgård is faced with another setback, another new obstacle, with every turn in the journey. Each one is worse than the last. Each one takes an even greater toll on Overgård who is already exhausted beyond his limit. He fights a hungry polar bear. He falls into a deep crevice, crippling his leg. It grows more difficult to even discern if the young woman is still alive.

Mads Mikkelsen is one of the finest actors working in film today. His roles have ranged from serial killers to super villains and Vikings to loving fathers and even a priest. For the most part, this movie belongs to him. And he does it with little dialogue. His face may suggest an implacable Nordic stoicism, but his eyes betray warmth and fatherly concern. It is a very physical part to play, filled with long and medium shots of Mads’ character making a punishing trek through deep snow and rocky cliffs, while pulling the injured Smáridóttir behind him.

Brazilian filmmaker Joe Penna directed “Arctic.” With a background in short films and TV, “Arctic” is his first feature length movie. Filmed in Iceland, one can imagine what physical challenges he, his cinematographer Tómas Örn Tómasson, and the rest of the crew faced in this frigid location.

“Arctic” can be an intense film to experience. The polar challenges mount up to almost unbearable agony as each obstacle looks more hopeless than the last. The story is a testament to one man’s will and determination. It’s a tribute to how far a man will go to save the life of a stranger.

Arctic” opens Feb. 1 in theaters nationwide.